The Joy of God’s Amazing Grace -- Sermon for Lent 4C (Psalm 32)

Psalm 32

Are you happy? Do you feel blessed by God? Then you must be forgiven. While none of us is sinless, the good news is we can be free from that nagging joy-killing sense of guilt that comes with sin. Therefore, let the recipients of God’s grace and mercy “be glad in the Lord.” 

During our Lenten journey, we’ve heard the Psalmist declare that God is our refuge and strength. Indeed, God’s steadfast love surrounds us when life proves challenging. Today’s reading from Psalm 32 begins with a pair of beatitudes that assure us that God forgives our transgressions so we can experience God’s peace. 

The Psalmist speaks of his transgressions weighing down on him. When it comes to our transgressions, our sins, they come in different forms, but each form is corrosive. Sin eats at our being. It disrupts our relationship with God, with each other, and with the world itself. There is good news, however. The Psalmist tells us that if we acknowledge and confess our sins and transgressions to the Lord, then God will forgive us. Then, free from guilt, we can be happy, blessed, and filled with joy.  

If we keep in mind the promise of forgiveness, we can then address the nature of sin. Neal Plantinga offers us a good definition of sin: 

Sin is not only the breaking of law but also breaking of covenant with one’s savior. Sin is the smearing of a relationship, the grieving of one’s divine parent and benefactor, a betrayal of the partner to whom one is joined by a holy bond. [Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, p. 12].  

Sin, he suggests, is a violation of God’s shalom, God’s peace, and it “interferes with the way things are supposed to be.” [Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, p. 14]. He defines God’s shalom as “God’s design for creation and redemption.” It’s the way things are supposed to be. So, sin is “blamable human vandalism of these great realities and therefore an affront to their architect and builder.” [Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be, p. 16].

So, let’s not be stubborn like a horse or mule and refuse to acknowledge what we know to be true about ourselves. May we take hold of the promise that while “many are the torments of the wicked, . . . steadfast love surrounds those who trust the LORD.”  This is God’s pathway to joy.

Sometimes we think of sin in terms of big transgressions. That can be true, but as St. Augustine reminds us, the destructive power of sin starts not with felonies but with small, seemingly insignificant, misdemeanors. He speaks of the human tendency toward mischief-making that can lead to bigger problems down the road. These misdemeanors are often the products of boredom that end up marring our relationships with God and neighbor. 

Augustine illustrated how this works with a story about his encounter with a pear tree. He confesses: 

I wanted to carry out an act of theft and did so, driven by no kind of need other than my inner lack of any sense of, or feeling for, justice. Wickedness filled me. I stole something which I had in plenty and of much better quality. My desire was to enjoy not what I sought by stealing but merely the excitement of thieving and the doing of what was wrong. There was a pear tree near our vineyard laden with fruit, though attractive in neither colour nor taste. To shake the fruit off the tree and carry off the pears, I and a gang of naughty adolescents set off late at night after (in our usual pestilential way) we had continued our game in the streets. We carried off a huge load of pears. But they were not for our feasts but merely to throw to the pigs. Even if we ate a few, nevertheless our pleasure lay in doing what was not allowed. [Augustine, The Confessions (Oxford World's Classics) (p. 29). Kindle Edition. ]

That final sentence is the key to Augustine’s view of sin: “our pleasure lay in doing what was not allowed.” 

Does that sound familiar to anyone? Have you ever sought the pleasure of doing something that wasn’t allowed, just to see if you could get away with it? The rule in competitive sports is—if you don’t get caught, it’s not illegal! Or consider the speed limits. Do any of you, like me, push the limit a bit? Do you feel a bit guilty and slow down when you see a police car sitting by the roadside? Then, when the police car is out of sight, do you put your foot back on the gas? I’m not sure this is sin, but could it be a pathway to violating God’s shalom?

Augustine responded to his own sense of guilt by making his confession to God:  

I had no motive for my wickedness except wickedness itself. It was foul, and I loved it. I loved the self-destruction, I loved my fall, not the object for which I had fallen but my fall itself. My depraved soul leaped down from your firmament to ruin. I was seeking not to gain anything by shameful means, but shame for its own sake. [The Confessions, p. 29.]  

Now, I think Augustine pushes things too far toward the idea that we are totally depraved as human beings. However, his story of the pear tree illustrates the pervasiveness of sin in our lives and in our culture.

  Getting back to the misdemeanors and their effect on our lives, consider for a moment an off-color joke. It may seem funny and cause us to laugh. We may enjoy telling it. But does it demean? Does it hurt? None of us wants to be the butt of a joke. No one wishes to be teased. So, why do we do it to others? By participating in these kinds of deeds, which might seem harmless on the surface, are we vandalizing God’s shalom?

While we often think of sin in personal terms there is another form that we need to be aware of, and that is systemic sin. Systemic forms are like viruses. They’re contagions that take hold of us without us even knowing. We’ve been dealing these past two years with an insidious virus that has sickened and killed millions across the globe. You never know when or if you’re going to catch it, but it’s out there waiting to infect unsuspecting individuals. They may, unknowingly, pass it onto others.

One of these systemic viruses is racism. Many ask why racism exists in our culture? Are we born racist? Is it a genetic predisposition? Or do we breathe it in like the Coronavirus? Racism is one of those transgressions that permeate the culture and unless we take precautions we can become infected by it. That transgression is corrosive to our well-being as people and communities.

In a moment we’ll sing John Newton’s hymn “Amazing Grace,” which is a favorite of many. There’s a lot of Augustine in that hymn, including the idea that we are wretches. That message can be a bit off-putting, but it reminds us that we participate, perhaps unknowingly, in vandalizing God’s shalom. 

Twelve-step programs teach us that the first step toward sobriety or freedom from addiction is acknowledging the problem. That’s what Lent does. It invites us to acknowledge our problem so we can experience forgiveness and the happiness and joy that comes with it. 

Forgiveness is an expression of God’s act of reconciliation in Christ, which leads to the new creation. Paul writes: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor. 5:17).  That is why forgiveness is such a sweet sound that fills our hearts with joy! Yes, God’s grace is amazing because it brings healing to the nations!

Preached by:

Dr. Robert D. Cornwall

Supply Pastor

First Presbyterian Church

Troy, Michigan

Lent 4C

March 27, 2022

Image attribution: Hand of God, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. [retrieved March 26, 2022]. Original source: